If you’ve recently had treatment for a hernia, then you may be wondering when you can return to exercise after hernia surgery.
Recovery after hernia surgery is tough!
No two recovery periods are the same – but there are some tips and advice that we’ll share in this guide to help you through the first 6 weeks.
So when exactly can you return to exercise after hernia surgery, and what does the recovery period look like if you’re a woman?
In this guide we’ll look at:
- What is a hernia?
- What causes a hernia?
- What is hernia surgery?
- How long is hernia surgery recovery time?
- What to expect during recovery
- How long after hernia surgery can I exercise?
- Effects of hernia surgery on your period
- 9 tips for recovery after hernia surgery
What is a hernia?
A hernia is when an internal part of the body (your abdominal organs) pushes through a weakness in the muscle or surrounding tissue wall.
This results in the appearance of a visible lump that gets bigger when you cough, strain or put pressure on your abdomen.
The hernia tends to disappear when you lie down.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are several types of hernia:
- Inguinal hernia – when your bowel protrudes into the inguinal canal in your inner thigh.
- Femoral hernia – when fatty tissue pokes through the femoral canal which lies underneath the inguinal canal.
- Hiatal hernia – when the top of your stomach pushes up through the opening in your diaphragm.
- Incisional hernia – when tissue protrudes through a former incision in your abdominal wall that has weakened over time.
- Umbilical hernia – when part of your intestine pokes through an opening in your abdominal wall near your belly button.
- Ventral hernia – any hernia that occurs through the front wall of your abdomen.
- Spigelian hernia – when the abdominal organs or peritoneum protrudes through the front (anterior) abdominal wall.
- Perineal hernia – when organs or tissue push through an opening or weakness in your pelvic floor cavity.
The most common hernia type is inguinal (groin) hernia, making up 75% of all hernia cases.
There are few studies and no systematic reviews focusing specifically on groin hernias in women.
One 2019 study found that the lifetime risk of developing a groin hernia in women is 3 to 5%.
Adding that the proportion of women who have had a groin hernia operated on is 8 to 11.5%.
Most hernias are not serious, but they can be if left untreated.
They can become serious when they become strangulated – meaning when the hernia gets stuck and it cannot be pushed back in.
This can become painful.
In severe cases the tissue can become cut off from the body’s blood supply, causing necrosis (tissue death).
Hernias tend to worsen over time so it’s important you speak with a doctor to understand if you need it surgically repaired sooner rather than later.
What causes a hernia?
A hernia is caused by a weakness or preexisting opening in your muscle or connective tissue.
As a result, your abdominal organs or other tissue pushes through the barrier.
Sometimes this weakness is present at birth, but usually it develops during your lifetime.
Here are the common causes of hernia which may mean you are more likely to develop a hernia:
- A history of abdominal surgery or pelvic surgery.
- Pregnancy, especially repeat pregnancies.
- Chronic constipation and straining to poop or pee.
- A chronic cough or sneeze.
- Repetitive stress and exertion in the abdominal region.
- A job that involves heavy lifting or standing for long periods of time.
- Chronic obesity (e.g. a BMI of 30 or more).
What is hernia surgery?
There are three different types of hernia surgery:
- Open repair
- Laparoscopic repair
- Robotic repair
According to a 2022 study, laparoscopic repairs have a lower incidence of chronic groin pain than open repair.
Adding that there is no evidence of differences in recurrence rates between laparoscopic and open repairs.
It is recommended you speak with your surgeon to understand the best repair approach for your hernia type and circumstances.
How long is hernia surgery recovery time?
Typically it takes between 6 to 7 weeks to recover after hernia surgery.
However, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to recovery after hernia surgery.
Recovery for one person will not look the same for another.
Research tells us that women can expect a higher rate of chronic post-operative pain following hernia surgery.
So bear this in mind, especially when returning to exercise as you don’t want to push your body too much during the recovery window.
Your surgeon will be able to advise what the recovery period will look like for your unique situation.
What to expect during recovery
The recovery period after hernia surgery can be tough.
If you’ve had abdominal surgery before for a c-section or endometriosis excision surgery, then I’m here to tell you that hernia surgery hits different!
This recovery timeline is based on my own recovery experience following my inguinal hernia repair surgery.
I underestimated the recovery period and it took at least 6 weeks for me to feel slightly back to normal.
Studies have shown that women are more likely to experience pain after hernia surgery.
First 24 hours
In the first 24 hours after surgery you will likely be feeling the effects of pain medication and anaesthetic.
Anaesthetic can make you feel tired and emotional (more than normal) so don’t be surprised if you feel low in the first week after surgery.
Your bed will be your best friend in the first 24 hours as you will be feeling very sleepy and tired.
Days 2 to 4
Days 2 to 4 after surgery are normally when the pain and discomfort starts to kick in once the pain medication has worn off.
Your surgeon may have given you pain meds to take away with you.
Although it’s totally fine to use these at home, be warned that some pain meds can make you constipated.
Constipation is not a nice feeling when you have a sore abdomen.
Be sure to check out videos online of how to get out of bed after abdominal surgery. This will be invaluable during your recovery.
When walking around at home make sure you don’t hunch over too much as you’ll be putting lots of pressure on your lower back.
Where possible, walk using an upright posture and remember to activate those glutes!
Days 5 to 14
By day 5 you will be feeling a little more like yourself.
Your abdomen will still be feeling tender and sore so take it easy.
Make sure you are staying active to increase blood circulation by taking gentle walks.
Walk for 10 minutes then gradually increase the distance each day.
If at any point you feel pain or discomfort, stop! It’s really important you listen to your body and don’t push through the pain.
Days 15 to 28
By the two week mark you will still likely be feeling sore and tender.
Throughout the first 4 weeks of my recovery I felt twinges, sharp pains and discomfort as my body healed.
These are normal in most cases but of course always check with your surgeon.
The post-surgery fatigue will probably stay with you for a good 6 weeks.
How long after hernia surgery can I exercise?
Returning to exercise after hernia surgery is possible but you don’t expect to dive straight back into your pre-surgery routine.
Your body has been through major surgery, so you’ll want to avoid any strenuous exercise for at least 6 weeks.
This means no high impact exercise like running and exercise that involves putting strain on your abdominal muscles.
You’ll also want to avoid any heavy lifting.
Studies tell us that the recommendation after hernia surgery is to reduce physical activity and lifting for up to 2 weeks after laparoscopic surgery and for up to 4 weeks after open surgery.
In the first few weeks after your surgery you’ll want to focus mainly on gentle, low impact exercise like walking and stretching.
During the first few days of your recovery you’ll likely find it difficult to even move around your house and go to the bathroom, so take it easy.
If you’ve ever had a c-section, you’ll know what this feels like!
It’s important however that you move your body to improve circulation. Taking a few steps to the bathroom is better than nothing!
You can also try some stretches to keep the blood flowing in your legs – either when you’re in bed or sitting on the couch.
Longer term it’s important you stretch daily to prevent muscle tightness and discomfort due to the normal healing and tissue remodelling process that occurs after surgery.
There’s such a process called ‘neuromuscular guarding’ which occurs when the body experiences surgical intervention.
Physical therapist Josh Wageman offers recommendations on some post-operative stretches to do after hernia surgery.
On this page you will also find video tutorials on how to do each stretch properly.
Effects of hernia surgery on your period
Unfortunately I couldn’t find any documented research online about the effects of hernia surgery on menstruation.
Following gynaecological surgery you’re normally told to expect a more painful first period after surgery.
After my hernia surgery my first period was more painful than normal.
I experienced more twinges and cramping in the lead up to my period, and my period that month was heavier and clottier than normal.
I’d be interested in reading any research on this topic, and I’m sure a lot of women who have undergone hernia surgery would too!
9 tips for recovery after hernia surgery
Now you know more about exercise after hernia surgery, here are some tips to make your recovery easier.
#1 Take it easy
Throughout the first 6 weeks of your recovery period it’s important you take it easy and listen to your body.
Your body has been through a lot so don’t push yourself too hard and always stop if you feel any pain.
You’ll likely feel wiped out for the first 6 weeks, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to take that afternoon nap.
#2 Wear an abdominal binder
An abdominal binder like this one from Amazon is a life saver for the first 6 weeks of your recovery.
The more you activate your abdominal muscles when you sit, stand and walk, the more they will hurt so a binder will help to compress everything down there.
#3 Place a cushion on your abdomen
Placing a cushion on your abdomen when you cough, sneeze or go to the bathroom will help to reduce any pain and discomfort.
#4 Drink lots of water
Your muscles and tissues are made up of almost 70% water so it’s important you stay hydrated to help with the recovery process.
#5 Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Focus on eating healthy, nutritious foods following your surgery. This means avoiding processed foods where possible.
Your body needs time to heal and repair its muscles and tissues.
By eating protein-rich foods like lean meat, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds, beans, lentils you will help with the recovery process.
#6 Stretch daily
As mentioned earlier, stretching is essential to help ease the tightness and discomfort in your muscles following surgery.
The type of stretching you do will largely depend on the type of hernia that you had repaired.
If you had a groin hernia, then physical therapist Josh Wageman offers recommendations on some post-operative stretches to do after hernia surgery.
#7 Go for gentle walks
Gentle walking will go a long way to boost circulation and improve your physical and mental health after surgery.
Aim to start walking for a few minutes daily then gradually increase the number of steps you take each day.
Abdominal massage will help to break down scar tissue that builds up after any type of surgery.
Kathe Wallace, physical therapist, provides a handy guide for massaging abdominal scars.
Always speak with your surgeon or doctor before doing any form of abdominal massage.
#9 Take online recovery videos with a pinch of salt
No two recovery periods are the same, so bear this mind when watching recovery videos online.
If someone is hitting the gym one week after their hernia surgery, don’t think that this is what your recovery period should be like.
Listen to your own body and how it feels.
If in doubt, speak to your surgeon for more advice on getting back into exercise after your surgery.